Shreya Bharath (SB), fashion design student in Toronto, Canada talks to Anne Pringle and Consuelo McAlister founders at ‘Local Buttons’ (LB), a Canadian social and sustainable enterprise that makes a refurbished clothing line that is designed in Toronto and produced in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Local Buttons – Fashioned to be Sustainable, Designed to be Ethical
Local Buttons is a Canadian social and sustainable enterprise started by Anne Pringle and Consuelo McAlister that makes a refurbished clothing line that is designed in Toronto and produced in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. These co-founders are part fashion designer, part entrepreneur and full time environmentalists who try and incorporate “ethics, environmentalism, human rights and fair labor standards into global capitalism.” Local Buttons uses materials from the second-hand ‘Pepe’ markets in Port-au-Prince and works with skilled Haitian tailors of the NGO INDEPCO to create unique, eco-friendly and refurbished fashion. Each garment made, supports environmental sustainability by ‘breathing new life into old materials’ while rebuilding the Haitian economy by creating fair-wage jobs. Learn more about them.
SB: How did you both meet? Did you both have experience in the Fashion world?
LB: Neither of us had experience with fashion at the undergraduate level. We did our undergraduate degree in International Development Studies, together at York University, Toronto. Right now, Consuelo is at George Brown College, Toronto, pursuing an Essential Skills in Fashion Certificate and Anne is a MASc Candidate in Environmental Applied Science and Management at Ryerson University, Toronto, where she is focusing on sustainable fashion.
SB: What were the factors that led, you both, to start Local Buttons? What made you choose Haiti?
LB: After finishing our undergraduate degrees, we began looking for jobs. We wanted to be sustainable and host a local show for the local market and we did. We wanted to be advocates of sustainable fashion. Haiti was always close to us and was always a country on our radar. We hosted a local, eco fashion show in April 2010, the year of the earthquake in Haiti, as a fundraising event for Brand Aid. (Brand Aid is a Not-for-Profit organization that works to rebuild economies in developing countries by bridging the gap between artisans in these countries and global consumers.) Brand Aid works in Haiti to re-build the economy and we used the show as a way to support and promote them. (Information on Brand Aid taken from here)
We invited the founder of Brand Aid to the event. He told us about the abundance of second hand clothing and how it had wiped out the tailoring sector of the Haitian economy. He hooked us up with a factory in Haiti, where we could make things out of the second hand clothing. In the following November, we made our first trip to Haiti. It took six months to finalize ideas and go there. We needed to set up the factory first and make sure everything was in good condition to work with – like adequate materials, good and safe work space, employees that were treated well etc.
SB: Did you both always entrepreneurs with a refurbished clothing line?
LB: We did not necessarily want to be entrepreneurs with a clothing line, but we always wanted to do something that was sustainable. Our aim is to re-engage the local population with local products and positively impact the world.
SB: Why the name Local Buttons?
LB: Buttons has become important to us, because it is these little details that make our clothing stand out. The buttons tie right into our name and are a way to identify our brand. However, beyond that, they help to make each piece unique. When we are sourcing the garments in the Pepe markets one of the things we look for are our beautiful buttons.
SB: What kinds of clothing do you make? Who designs them and how do you go about making them?
LB: We design all the products. We started by making vests because it was easy to make, well tailored, and classic with an allowance for creativity. We also make jackets, skirts and bow ties with most prices ranging from $45 – $75 CAD and some suits are $200 CAD. INDEPCO is our manufacturing partner in Haiti. INDEPCO is a private development assistance to non-profit. It groups together tailors and seamstresses, sewing shop owners across Haiti. We employ about 10 senior tailors through them. We also employ 2 contract workers, independent of INDEPCO, who do all our material purchasing from the local second hand ‘Pepe’ markets when we are not in Port-au-Prince. (Information on INDEPCO taken from here)
We know how many components of second hand jackets and other clothing it takes to make the items that we make and when we place orders with the supervisor at the factory, we break the numbers down for him. We call him and tell him what colors and sizes we want and for what season and he knows our aesthetic.
When we buy second hand clothing we make sure it’s clean (not stained) and not ripped. All the clothing that we buy at the market is in large sizes, which makes it easier to make garments out of them. The clothing bought is separated into bundles of lining, dress shirt fabric, suiting fabric etc. There is a list of what needs to be made and how many pieces of fabric it needs, then the patterns are cut, there are tailors who make it, it is then inspected for quality and ironed.
SB: Why was starting a particularly sustainable business so important to you and why do you think more people should focus on making their businesses sustainable?
LB: We believe that each purchase is a vote, a chance to put our money towards what we believe in. At Local Buttons, we look to make those sustainable and ethical decisions/votes that consumers make every day that much more accessible. In terms of clothing, dressing functions as self expression- a way to show (outwardly) who we are. We think it is important that clothing represents not only style, but also lifestyle. We feel better knowing that we are creating beautiful clothing that has an added bonus of being both eco-friendly and ethical. In general, we believe that consumers want to purchase sustainably, it is matter of affordability and accessibility. In that respect, it is important for others to start sustainable businesses in order to influence the market in a positive way. Companies function to make profits, but they make profits from the communities they exist within. This is where Corporate Social Responsibility is critical.
SB: What are your plans for the future? Do you plan on expanding the enterprise to include refurbished clothing from other countries?
LB: We want to keep our business sustainable and expand to different countries like Brazil, Ghana or India. We want to make refurbished clothing mainstream and make our prices accessible. We want to have our own stores across Canada’s university towns and then branch out to the US and Europe for sales. We could go on about the production possibilities but first we want to make the production end more efficient and then expand production numbers. It’s a first for a lot of sustainable designers. We just want to keep at it for a long time.
SB: What advice, based on your experience, do you have for a student, like me, who is interested in starting a venture today?
LB: Keep us on your roster! Also, networking is essential but it needs to honest. Don’t give out your resume to everyone! Align yourself to where you want be professionally.
Write down sources, focus on transparency to build a community of followers, write down goals, become detail oriented, find a business mentor, find people who are not necessarily interested in fashion and check if your plan works or interests them.
To connect with Shreya or Local Buttons, leave us a comment here. STW will help make the connection.